When companies break the law and people pay: The scary lesson of the Google Bus | Salon

When companies break the law and people pay: The scary lesson of the Google BusGoogle headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (Credit: AP/Paul Sakuma)
Ever since Rebecca Solnit took to the London Review of Books  to ruminate on the meaning of the private chartered buses that transport tech industry workers around the San Francisco Bay Area (she called them, among other things, “the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule us,”) the Google Bus has become the go-to symbol for discord in Silicon Valley.  First a Google Bus piƱata was smashed to pieces at a rally in San Francisco’s Mission district last May.  Then protesters drove a fake Google Bus in the annual Pride Parade with props linking the shuttles to gentrification, eviction and displacement.  By December, when activists blockaded an actual Google bus on the street, the city and media were primed for the street theater stunt heard round the world. This frenzy seemingly culminated yesterday when, following another morning blockade and protest and several hours of contentious public comment, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Authority unanimously approved a plan to begin regulating the shuttles by requiring them to obtain a permit and pay a $1 per stop fee.
The Google Bus (I use the term, as most Bay Area residents do, to refer generally to private buses chartered by employers, including Facebook, Genentech, Apple, Yahoo and others) means something different to everyone.  For tech companies, it is a recruitment tool, a means of burnishing their environmental bona fides, and a way to extend the work day by several otherwise unproductive hours.  Shuttle riders, perhaps prompted by corporate talking points, suggest that without the buses they would just drive to work, adding more cars to the streets.  The shuttle companies act like they are running a jobs program.  (Michael Watson, a V.P. with Bauer’s Intelligent Transportation, said his company employs about 400 people.  He would not disclose how much the bus drivers are paid, but he did state that they are not unionized.)  Housing activists point out that the buses serve people who are driving up rents, displacing lower-income residents.  Pedestrians and bikers complain of the buses clogging narrow streets.  Riders of Muni (the city’s bus system) complain of delays and congestion because the shuttles use Muni stops.  Some fear that the shuttles are turning San Francisco into an expensive bedroom community for Silicon Valley.  Others point to the shuttles as a harbinger of the privatization of public transportation.